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Director's Career Soars on Wings of 'Angels'

Movies: When filmmaker Erick Zonca set out to write a role for Elodie Bouchez, he was aiming for an emotional portrait. He wound up with a Cannes prizewinner.

April 02, 1999|KRISTIN HOHENADEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Erick Zonca's muse stands in the door frame of her balcony at the Bel Age Hotel. Flown in from Paris for 24 hours of promotion for the U.S. release of Zonca's film "The Dreamlife of Angels," the French actress Elodie Bouchez has returned to her elegant self after her portrayal of the scruffy, lovable drifter Isa in the French director's debut feature film.

On a recent morning, the petite actress is in a black dress and knee-high suede boots. Gone is the scar that marred Isa's right eyebrow. The jet-black hair, hacked off for the part, is still short, but has been tamed and smoothed around her face.

Bouchez and co-star Natacha Regnier shared the best actress award at last year's Cannes Film Festival for Zonca's deeply felt character study of two young working-class outsiders in northern France. The film, which opens in Los Angeles today, has catapulted 42-year-old Zonca from obscurity to his current status as one of France's most sought-after directors. It went on to win three Cesar awards, the French Oscar, for best film, best actress for Bouchez and most promising young actress for Regnier.

Shot in the dingy industrial town of Lille, a few hours north of Paris, "Dreamlife" is the story of Isa, an optimistic, resilient soul who earns food money by selling homemade cards in the street, and the embittered, incendiary Marie (Regnier). The two meet when Isa, newly arrived in town, takes a job at the local sewing factory.

Soon she is rooming with Marie, who has been camped out in the apartment of a woman and child hospitalized after an accident. The girls form a bond that fractures when Isa starts visiting Sandrine, who's lying in a hospital bed in a coma, and reading passages from the girl's diary, and when Marie enters into a destructive affair that crushes the last of her dream life.

Zonca's emotional portraits are based loosely on real people: Marie on a woman he lived with for three years ("For me she's not selfish, she's very alone," he says by phone from Paris) and Isa on another woman ("She's very generous, very open with people. Me, I cannot do that. I'm very surprised when I see people who have this generosity"). Chris, the predatory rich boy who kills Marie's last hope, was based on a boy in the town where he was growing up; like Chris in the film, he got all the girls and his father owned a brasserie.

"I pick things up here and there from reality and I bring them to my characters and stories," Zonca says.

Zonca says his idea for "Dreamlife," which he co-wrote with Roger Bohbot, began with the image of Isa. Zonca had seen Bouchez in Andre Techine's "Wild Reeds," and wrote the character with Bouchez in mind--a fact that he announced to her at a film festival where he was collecting an award for a short film.

Bouchez says she was flattered; she liked Zonca's short films and, at 20, she had yet to be anybody's inspiration. But when she got the script a year and a half later, she says, she found the part Zonca had written for her flat and boring, compared with the rebellious Marie.

"I liked the script and the relationship between those two girls, but I didn't like my character. She was a good person and that was it," Bouchez says.

Zonca says the contrast was intentional, that he needed Isa to be the generous, open-hearted, optimistic counterpoint to the harsh Marie. "Elodie read the script and she wanted to find in this character some extremes like Marie, and so she was disappointed," Zonca says. "I said to her, 'For this character I need your generosity, your light, your smile.' I told her, 'I don't need that you think too much. I just need you.' "

Bouchez says she received little input from the director about how to portray Isa. And that's by design. "I'm not somebody who explains a character before the first shot," Zonca says.

Bouchez says that she found a way to play Isa that first day, discovering her walk and her voice. "I had an amazing freedom," Bouchez says. "I felt like I was able to try everything and to do everything. I was like in a bubble and nothing could touch me."

Regnier was younger, less experienced, and Zonca says he purposefully taunted her into creating her alienated portrayal of Marie, in which a terrified rage seems to haunt her placid fair features.

"We fought all the time. I had to be brutal so that she gives what she gives in the movie," Zonca says unapologetically. "She was defending too much her character; she wanted that the character was nice and that people could understand that. But I didn't need that, I just needed the strength and fragility of Natacha."

Similarly, he says, Gregoire Colin, who plays Chris, "had a very hard time, because the character doesn't say anything about what he feels. I just said to him, 'I don't want that you appear like a [nice] guy. You are very, very selfish.'

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